TAMPA, Fla. -- CC Sabathia's first pitch of the day left the ballpark even faster than it left his hand. The fastball, clocked at 91 mph by a Yankees radar gun, was sent soaring over the 30-foot chain link fence in left-center that protects the Yankees player personnel offices from pulverized baseballs by Alen Hanson, a 22-year-old shortstop listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds who has never played at a level higher than Double-A ball.
Two innings later, it was Elias Diaz, a 24-year-old catcher with 10 games of Triple-A ball under his belt, sending Sabathia's changeup to virtually the same spot. That made five home runs surrendered by Sabathia in his last two spring outings, one against a minor-league team and the other against the New York Mets.
Is this any way to start a season?
Well, Sabathia and Joe Girardi say it is. They cite the belief that Sabathia is healthier this spring than he was last year, that his fastball is up a tick or two from where it has loitered the past couple of seasons, and the fact that the wind was blowing out. Sabathia also lamented the fact that minor-league hitters are notoriously unpredictable, difficult to scout and have a disturbing tendency to jump on first-pitch fastballs.
"I think there should be a rule against swinging at the first pitch of the game," Sabathia said. "That's my take. That's what I was thinking, anyway."
It was clear what Sabathia was thinking at the time, because he let out a clearly audible four-letter epithet as the ball left Hanson's bat, the same expletive he dropped when asked afterward how much credence he thought should be placed upon spring training numbers.
"I don't give a f--- what stock they put in it," he said. "It is what it is. I've had spring trainings where I've given up a lot of runs and went out and had a good season. I've had spring trainings like last year where I didn't give up no runs and I gave up five in the first game. Y'all can put stock in whatever you want. I'm not really worried about it."
And ordinarily you would not be, especially with a pitcher of Sabathia's experience and track record.
But when that same pitcher is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he made only eight starts and had surgery on a knee that has been called "degenerative," and in the previous season had posted a then-career high ERA or 4.78 and led the Yankees pitching staff in home runs allowed with 28 -- a staff that included home run machine Phil Hughes, no less -- it makes it a bit tougher to discount the importance of a spring like this.
And when you factor in the normally placid and easygoing Sabathia's testiness on Saturday afternoon, well, you start to get the impression that the big fella is more than a little concerned about it, too.
Sabathia's line on Saturday was unsightly -- five innings, five hits, four earned runs, two walks, seven strikeouts and the two home runs -- although because they came at the hands of the Indianapolis Indians, the Pittsburgh Pirates' AAA affiliate, they will not count in Sabathia's 2015 spring statistics.
Still, that doesn't mean they didn't happen, and trust the word of an eyewitness -- namely, me -- that these were not wind-blown home runs. They were bonafide bombs, especially Hanson's, a reality that Sabathia inadvertently acknowledged when asked about it at his locker by his neighbor, Dellin Betances. "Yeah, man," Sabathia chuckled, ruefully. "On the first f---ing pitch!"
You can see what the operative word of the day was.
Perhaps even more significantly, Sabathia had not been banished to the minor league complex for the day by the Yankees powers-that-be; according to Girardi, he was given the choice of pitching to the Baltimore Orioles before 10,000 in the big ballpark and thousands more on the YES Network, or in relative anonymity across the street, where only a handful would be watching. He chose the latter.
"It’s what he wanted to do," Girardi said. "It’s not the worst thing because sometimes it’s easier to build people up in that situation."
Asked if he would have preferred to have Sabathia pitch at Steinbrenner Field, where he could make an eyewitness assessment, Girardi said, "I don't think CC's spot is in jeopardy."
Certainly not, not with two years plus an easily vesting option year worth a minimum of $53 million left on his contract.
Nor is his spot as the ace of the Yankees pitching rotation; that has already been transferred over the Masahiro Tanaka, along with Sabathia's former entitlement, that of the Opening Day start. Sabathia will not start until the third game of the season, on April 9.
Still, the Yankees are counting on Sabathia to be a steady presence in their rotation, to give them the 200-plus innings he had thrown in each of the seven seasons preceding last year, when he didn't make it out of May. And even if he'll never win 20 games again, you know they are depending upon him for 12 to 15 if they are to consider themselves serious contenders this season.
It would be foolish to think that can't still happen on the basis of one bad spring training, or even two. (Sabathia will get one more start this spring, either next Friday or Saturday.)
But for Sabathia, it hasn't been just one or two bad starts in games that don't count. It's the two seasons leading into this spring that were just as worrisome, chronicling as they did the slow-but-steady decline of a once-great pitcher. It's encouraging that for the first time in a long time, Sabathia says he feels well physically. But it's discouraging to note that the results remain the same.
"You don't look at results; you look at his stuff," Girardi said. "You try to evaluate his stuff and how you feel about that. What we’ve seen this year is much more positive than what we’ve seen the last, you know, in velocity, the discrepancy between that and the changeup and slider, so now to me it’s just ironing out and being more consistent. I feel like he's making progress. The bottom line is that he’s right on Opening Day."